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Published September 16, 2013, 09:54 AM

Farms seek high-tech help

Ted Batkin knows there might not be enough workers this year to pick California’s signature orange crop because an ongoing shortage of migrant farm laborers.

By: Stacy Finz, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Ted Batkin knows there might not be enough workers this year to pick California’s signature orange crop because an ongoing shortage of migrant farm laborers.

That’s why he’s working on a robot.

It will have arms, hands and even eyes, and do the harvesting work of four to eight people, depending on its speed. Besides citrus, the robot — it still doesn’t have an official name — can be used for apples, pears, peaches and other stone fruit.

“It’s a game-changer,” says Batkin, the former president of the Citrus Research Board. “We’ll no longer be dependent on human labor for harvesting.”

The citrus robot is just one of the new technological advances that farmers and ranchers are using to become more efficient and sustainable as they are challenged with a shrinking labor force.

Of the 1.2 million people employed in agriculture-related jobs in the United States, an estimated 70 percent are undocumented. But that number is dwindling. Last year, California growers had to scrounge, borrow and beg to get their crops picked on time as fewer seasonal workers made the trek across the border.

For many, it’s become too dangerous, with border crackdowns and the potential violence involved in being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico.

But even as lawmakers try to reform immigration, there are other reasons migrant workers have stopped coming to California to help with the planting, pruning and harvest.

The Mexican population is aging and its workforce is more educated and able to get less strenuous work for higher wages, say demographers and economists tracking the flow of migration and its effects on the agriculture industry.

A report released last year by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that only 375,000 people left Mexico from November 2010 to November 2011, compared with 1.05 million five years earlier.

“I believe we’ve bottomed out,” says Jeff Passel, a senior demographer for the nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research firm. “The number of young people in Mexico reaching labor force age is decreasing. The rate of Mexican women having babies dropped in the late 1960s and by the mid '90s, there was a drop in births. By 2000, the average woman was having 2.4 babies, down from seven children.”

California farmers are scrambling to make up the loss with technology. In the past, researchers and engineers have seen their innovations delayed by industry crises and redeployed resources, Batkin says. The citrus harvester has been in the works for nine years.

“This time, economists are warning us that the labor crunch could get worse, so we’re putting the band back together,” he says, adding that they are now working on the harvester in earnest and are two years from getting the robot in the field.

Batkin estimates that the price for the harvester will be $300,000, but the cost will likely come down with demand. Three companies, including the San Diego software firm Vision Robotics, are involved in developing the technology and Batkin says they are looking for a fourth.

The machine is self-propelled through rows of orchards, and uses cameras and four arms and legs on each side of the harvester to pick the trees clean of fruit. But the machine must cut the stem at the base of the fruit before placing it in a bin so the stems won’t damage the other fruit.

The typical pay for a live picker is $20 for a half-ton bin of oranges, Batkin says, although the rate can go up during labor shortages. Based on amortization, the harvester can pick that same bin for roughly a dollar less, he says.

And unlike humans, the harvester can work in the dark, which is important since picking starts after fruit dries from the morning dew.

Batkin says the next phase of harvesting machines includes mechanical fingers that could pick delicate market- ready fruit such as strawberries, cherries and table olives. But that’s still in the future. Olive picking for oil already has gone to automated harvesting on many farms, and the processed tomato industry has been using automated equipment for years.

Lettuce growers are already taking advantage of new innovations that will enable them to use fewer field workers.

Strides in development

At the University of California at Davis, agricultural engineering professors are also making technological strides that will ultimately reduce a need for laborers. One of the most significant is a drone, or unmanned aircraft, which can do anything from herding cattle to spraying chemicals.

“Anything that’s boring, repetitive and dangerous: Get a drone,” says UC Davis’ Ken Giles, who has been working with his team on a 200-pound helicopter that can fly over fields and hillside vineyards where tractors can’t go to apply pesticides.

But soon there will be camera-fitted drones small enough to fit in a person’s hand that can be bought for a few thousand dollars and sent up by a farmer to check a crop’s health, monitor irrigation and even find a wayward cow, Giles says.

With three or four small-scale drones, a rancher can herd livestock, especially in rugged areas that are difficult to get to by vehicle or horseback.

“It’s going to put the border collie out of business,” Giles says. “As far as the cowboy, he’s got his hands full anyway.”

The drones are still in the experimental phase and can only be tested in U.S. skies by public agencies with authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Giles doesn’t expect the government to give its approval for commercial use until 2015.

Shrini Upadhyaya , another UC Davis engineering professor, is working on a light bar sensor that measures how much energy the ground has absorbed from the sun, providing farmers with a guide for pruning orchards, which is normally labor intensive. He is also developing sensors that measure soil water.

“Now no one needs to go to the field,” he says. “You get the data every five minutes on your laptop.”

Batkin says finding alternatives for hand labor using science is a necessity, but farming is still half art.

“You can never entirely replace boots on the ground,” he says.

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